Monday, September 16, 2013

LA Women's Shakespeare's "Hamlet" (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

Hamlet, Prince of Denmark not only remains one of Shakespeare's most famous works, but one of the most challenging. For an almost startling number of reasons! Many go unnoticed unless (like yours truly) one has seen many productions of differing styles and quality.

The Los Angeles Women's Shakespeare Company just premiered a production. I've never seen a show of theirs before now, sorry to say. Having watched this, I'm even sorrier to have missed earlier shows! A major conceit of this company lies in an all-female cast, with male parts (Edwin Drood-like) played by male impersonators, i.e. women in drag. Not in any campy way, but simply in a reversal of how they did theatre in Shakespeare's day--with men (or boys) playing the women's roles. Some folks react badly to such, whereas to me this counts as a style. Ditto the non-traditional casting, i.e. ignoring ethnicity. Seems to me this production did exactly the right thing in such casting. I've seen plenty of Shakespeare productions do as much, and nearly always it worked when the performance pretty much ignored ethnicity altogether. Audiences accept a lot. If the cast simply does something, most of the time the audience follows suit. After all, people don't speak in iambic pentameter! Neither do they routinely stand in such a way as to be visible to people sitting in one end of every single room!

Okay, enough of pontificating about other performances! How was this one?

Something of mixed bag, but far less mixed than usual! Mostly quite good--and in startling ways! I really want to offer up a lot of praise for Natsuko Ohama who plays Polonius. Not until reading through the program did I realize she's also the co-director of this production. And not until I did a search to find her website did my jaw drop as I realize why she looked familiar! Quite simply, she was a regular on a favorite televisions series, Forever Knight. But more to the point, she is the second best Polonius I've ever seen (the best was Ian Holm). And Polonius is the single most difficult character in a play riddled with traps and difficult characters (an acting coach once insisted to me we don't have the final draft of Hamlet for that very reason). Better than nine times out of ten, Polonius ends up as a comic relief, played as an elderly clown. In this production, Ohama's performance shows exactly why that's a mistake. Suddenly, Ophelia's and Laertes' reaction to his death is shared by the audience! Yes, sometimes Polonius is funny, not least because the man does like to hear himself talk and he's old enough now and then he loses his train of thought. But he himself is not a joke. Polonius is wise, active, capable of admitting a mistake (amazing, that)
and for this among other things commands the respect of virtually every other character in the play! In fact, one can point out the biggest mistake Hamlet makes in the whole story is not trusting Polonius from the very start.

Likewise, Cynthia Beckert's Laertes (the second most difficult part in the play, so say I) makes total sense now, simply because his relationship with Polonius is based not simply familial love but genuine respect and admiration. This is no boy enraged at a personal loss, but that enraged boy who knows (as does everyone) what a very fine and good man has been murdered. Ditto Chastity Dotson as Ophelia! The specificity of her performance completely grabbed my heart as I (rightly or wrongly) came away with a precise idea of what is going on inside Ophelia's tortured soul. Lawrence Olivier famously answered the question "Did Hamlet and Ophelia sleep together?" with the (very funny) "Yes...on tour." But my measurement of Ophelia tends to be whether I know the answer to that question. Or think I do. In this case, the whole story of this young lady's tangled feelings for her brother, her father and her paramour, even for herself, bled out onto the stage.

I can offer lots of other praise for many details in this production, including the high quality sets and costumes, the very cunning expedient of making one of the notoriously difficult-to-distinguish pair Rosencranz and Guildenstern female (including--no small thing--treating the character as female in that milieu), the overall quality of the cast (very high indeed) or even the seemingly minor detail of having people cross themselves correctly (how odd this is
so rare!). But I called this performance 'mixed' and I should justify that.

First, the stage combat didn't work. It looked seriously under-rehearsed, because the essential actions themselves seemed just fine. Above average at least! But the actors (the same two) moved too slowly and with not near enough assurance to look like a real fight.

Second, this production over-used the Ghost. Not much, but putting the Ghost of Hamlet's father into scenes where the playwright did not (however briefly) can be problematical and in this case didn't work.

Both of those seem barely qualifying of critiques, maybe. True enough. I've little to complain about at all. A few moments here and there I thought could use some work. Here however I will come to a subtle but pervasive problem.

Hamlet, as played by Lisa Wolpe (who also co-directed). I find myself wondering if the fact she directed herself had something to do with what I have to say. The rest of the cast did such a splendid job overall! But that creates the wrong impression, as if Wolpe did a poor performance. Not at all! But it did prove an uneven one. Quite startlingly so--because between Hamlet's first and last scenes with the Ghost (on the castle parapet, then in the Queen's chamber) this was a vivid, poignant and in his own way powerful Hamlet. Every actor who takes on this role needs to make it their own. Wolpe made a choice I've never seen before--and kudos for that alone! Her Hamlet is...well...weak. Not a bad person, but less strong than a future king really should be, and he cracks under what is simply Too Much. Too much confusion over his father's death and mother's remarriage. Too much resentment over the same,
coupled with the frustrations over his longing for Ophelia. Finding out there's life after death, that his father was murdered and now suffers in Purgatory, followed by one lie after another from those he cares about (his contemporaries, all--like many young men he simply doesn't look to his elders for wisdom or advice). This Hamlet pretends to be mad, but doesn't have to pretend much. He's suffering from a kind of breakdown, and Wolpe shows us this in ways that touch the heart and involve the mind.

But no so much at the very start. At the very beginning this Hamlet seems a cypher. Mind you, the more Wolpe acts with other members of the cast the better and more powerful her every moment. Which is to say she's better doing scenes than soliliquies. Okay.

More frustrating (but still--anything but bad) is when Hamlet returns from abroad, having escaped a piece of treachery by arranging the legal murder of two (former?) friends then going through a battle at sea. The confusion vanishes. Instead of melancholy, we see a razor-like serenity and focus. He's gone from someone who listens to the Dead in terror and rage to a man contemplated the skull of a beloved childhood companion, asking questions without any fierce demand for answers. Ophelia's death moves him to an outburst, but instead of wallowing he realizes almost immediately he's in the wrong, forthrightly and with minimum drama. "Readiness is all," he says. Here lies the heart of who Hamlet has become. Now, he is ready. Knows it. Proceeds with the end of this tale, eyes open and head up, unafraid and resolute. But where did this change take place? And why? Frankly this seems to me the greatest single challenge of the part. Wolpe doesn't quite answer that question for me. She does the middle Hamlet, the tormented young man bubbling over with passions he doesn't understand, extremely well. Her beginning Hamlet is straightforward, real, uninspired but totally believable. Her end Hamlet, though, lacks the power of her Middle.

Which is a nuance. That I 'complain' about such a nuance actually testifies how good this production is overall. I recommend it highly, and say publically it compares well with some of the very best Hamlets I myself have seen (like Kevin Kline's and David Tenant's), and far exceeds others (Mel Gibson's and Richard Chamberlain's).

The Los Angeles Women's Shakespeare Company's production of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark plays through October 27, 2013 at the Odyssey Theatre at 2055 Sepulveda, Los Angeles CA 90025 (310) 477-2055.

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